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The Simmering Six
One weird trick to be super productive: try doing nothing
A fragment from a recent journal entry:
It is Saturday, 12:49 PM. I have nothing to do. All my days are Saturdays now; a carte blanche of possibility entangled with the “where to start” mild panic that comes from staring at a blank canvas. What do you do when you have nothing you need to do?
First off, of course, let’s go through the mail. Toss the junk mail, pile up the items that need to be processed. Ah yes that bought us about three minutes. Now I’ll empty the dishwasher. Make some coffee. Heat some leftovers for lunch. Okay, and then?
When I left Pocket Gems mid-May I continued on part-time on the same project for twenty hours a week. I was covering for someone on paternity leave and as a result I felt like I never really left. The only changes were a new Slack account, and a switch to my personal email from my work one. I still attended the same standups; I still worked with the same people I’d known for a decade. It did not feel like I’d gone anywhere at all.
Then I left for my road trip through the Pacific Northwest (which I’ve written about here and here). Traveling forced me to shake up my routine with work — I couldn’t very well attend a daily standup when I was somewhere in Olympic National Park without internet access. And so while I did finally begin to disconnect, I was traveling, and that seemed like a vacation. I’d taken vacations before, and I knew what it felt like to not think about work while traveling. This was no different, minus the pay.
It wasn’t until coming home that I was forced to confront the reality of what being on a sabbatical really meant. No more travel occupying my daily activities, just me, in my house, with a temporal blank canvas.
It is uncomfortable.
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What do you do when you have nothing to do? Each day prompts a re-examination of what you really care about, what your priorities are, and how you actually spend your time.
Some advice on finding your passion takes the shape of “what would you be doing even if no one paid you to do it?” It’s easy to answer when you’re working a full-time job: they’re usually the hobbies you squeeze in on the side. But when you have no time constraints, the context has changed — I might like playing video games to relax after work, but do I really want to play them all day and do nothing else? Even more “productive” activities start morphing into existential questions. I like writing, but do I actually want to sit and read and write every day?
Maybe finding the answer to this is what people reach for when they talk about a “calling”. It’s not necessarily something you love or enjoy (though it can be!); it’s what you can’t not do. A compulsion, almost addiction.
I don’t have a great answer. It feels a bit like I am caught in a web of self-constructed catch-22s: I’m supposed to be relaxing and specifically not working, but doing nothing feels lazy and wasteful. I have time to travel extensively, but traveling doesn’t seem as restful as being at home. All first world problems, but problems for me nonetheless.
Honestly, a surprisingly hard question! I am no opponent to capitalism, and remain one of those believers of it being the best of what we’ve got. But still, it would be silly to think society had not ingrained in me a strong predisposition for work and “productivity”. The very idea of taking a sabbatical stirs up feelings of laziness or uselessness, which I am pretty sure was not my birthright.
Hersey’s message is rooted in liberation and resistance, but even if you love grind culture (honestly, really? in 2023?), resting might still be something you should be doing more of.
Josh Waitzkin was a child chess prodigy who later became a world-class martial artist, competing and winning in Tai Chi Chuan, and earning a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.In a 2019 interview on the art of learning and peak performance, he shared a concept he calls the “simmering six”.
Imagine a spectrum of personal energy level where ten is all-in pouring your energy into something and one is… I don’t know, vibing. The “simmering six” is the space that most of us occupy most of the time. It’s showing up for work or a craft or hobby and doing a decent enough job. It’s being constantly plugged in to the Global Social Computer in the Cloud. None of this is negative work, it’s just not done with extreme focus and intention.
Waitzkin’s argument is that it would be far better to oscillate between the ten and one — between periods of extreme intense focus, and periods of rest. Periods where you might truly be useless to capitalism. His reason is that operating at a ten is orders of magnitude better than being at a six; the scale is not linear. This is hard in part because society (and the capitalist grind culture Hersey decries) doesn’t support people doing this. For example, in the US our health insurance is tied to full-time employment. (Good health insurance anyway.) And most hiring managers would prefer someone without repeated six-month gaps in their resume. So most of us simmer on at a six, because what else can you do?
All of this is to say that I think Hersey is on to something, and if Waitzkin’s theory is correct, resting not only offers spiritual and physical benefits, but also ironically offers the most effective path to achieving whatever goals (capitalist or otherwise) you might have.
I am telling you this as much as I am telling myself. Some number of weeks into this sabbatical, there are many days I find myself around five PM suddenly asking myself “what exactly did I do today?” and feeling slightly guilty for not being able to point to several productive items crossed off the checklist.
Perhaps it is time to give it a rest.